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Two Guilford High School (GHS) students are hoping to bring their research on recreational drug effects on brain function to a wider audience after delving into these issues as part of the Capstone Project at GHS, using their voices and knowledge to combat a continuing crisis of addiction and substance abuse among their peers.

Cassidy Jones and Evan Laughlin spent a semester researching “The Effect of Substance Abuse on the Adolescent Brain” and “The Effect of Marijuana on the Brain,” respectively, as part of the independent study program at GHS and which they presented at the Guilford Library last month.

Both said what they learned and the feedback they have received has inspired them to look for more ways to reach out to the broader Guilford community.

Capstone adviser Nicole McDonald said that while it was very preliminary, Jones and Laughlin had received some interest in presenting their findings to GHS health classes or to middle school students. Representative of Guilford DAY, a local volunteer coalition fighting substance abuse and other high-risk behaviors in youth, had lauded Jones’s and Laughlin’s work when they presented last month, McDonald said, which could potentially offer another avenue for the students to reach out to their peers.

Capstone operates essentially as a student-driven internship or independent study program that involves outside mentors as well as GHS faculty, McDonald said. Projects range from community outreach initiatives against homelessness to rebuilding an old car, according to McDonald.

Laughlin and Jones came up with their projects completely independently, they said, though both were inspired by some of the same observations and experiences.

“Marijuana is just a very commonly used substance nowadays,” Laughlin said. “There’s not much shade on it in society…I ended up finding there are bad parts about marijuana—the destructive properties of it on the adolescent brain.”

“I focused on nicotine, marijuana, synthetic drugs—I think that’s important to learn about it,” Jones said. “It’s a big issue. There’s things that kids are going through now, especially with stress and everything—and they can’t handle it…they end up getting addicted.”

Both Jones and Laughlin said they were surprised by some of what they learned during their research. Among their peers, they found ample misinformation or a lack of understanding regarding what drugs can do or the overall impact of using.

“There are more negative effects of the use of marijuana than are presented to us, or just common knowledge, it’s just surprising to me, because I thought that I would be able to rely on society’s general view of it, which I guess wasn’t completely accurate,” Laughlin said.

Jones said she had run into similar revelations, specifically around nicotine, which has become a hot-button issue with the meteoric rise in vaping among the teen population. The physiological consequences of addiction, which are often interconnected with other mental health issues and stress, can be dire, especially in young people, Jones said.

Laughlin specifically said he thought it likely that drug use was “a fallback plan” for many teens trying to cope with stress.

While school administrators and other local advocates are certainly working to impart this information and raise awareness around some of these problems, Jones, Laughlin, and McDonald all agreed that having a teen hear it from a person their own age, who has insight into their experiences and ideas, could be much more effective at spreading the information.

“This generation…will listen more so [to us]. Because when adults say no [to drugs], they just think, ‘Rebel,’” Jones said.

“Kids just tend to listen to kids when it comes to stuff like this, both negatively and positively,” McDonald said.

Laughlin said he specifically thought that middle school or even elementary school age kids would look up to people like himself and Jones, and would be receptive to hearing about these issues from them.

Both Jones and Laughlin agreed that there is an urgency, a growing problem with these things among their peers, both in a basic understanding of facts as well as the culture around substance use. Both also emphasized that the best way to reach teens is to present these things in a fair, factual, and empathetic way.

“I purposely didn’t focus on the legalization [of marijuana],” Laughlin said. “Because it’s possible there are benefits of marijuana—it’s a two-sided thing….but I think the information that I found…should be presented just as well as the benefits are so that it’s not a one-sided argument.”

“There needs to be a change,” Jones said. “If you just show experiences to kids and things like the actual consequences, they’ll begin to change and see and avoid that.”

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